In the 1450s, Sir Thomas Malory sat down at his prison table to write his glorious Le Morte d’Arthur. He had sent for a rich and exciting library of Arthurian romances, a few of them in middle English but far more in French, and these he translated, condensed and extended, amended and dramatised to create the Arthurian story as it is known to English-speaking audiences worldwide. That we understand just what he translated, and how, we owe to the devoted, painstaking life’s work of my former colleague Professor Fanni Bogdanow, who has died aged 86.
Fanni’s life story was as remarkable as any romance. She was born in Düsseldorf, Germany. When she was 11, in 1939 and just in time, her parents loaded her on to a Kindertransport train bound for Britain. She was taken in by a Quaker family in Manchester to whom she remained very grateful. In 1945, she won a scholarship to study French at Manchester University; she was to stay at Manchester, as undergraduate, postgraduate, lecturer, reader and professor, for the rest of her life. Her parents, astonishingly, survived between them Dachau, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; to Fanni’s intense joy, her mother later joined her in Manchester.
Meanwhile, however, inspired by Eugène Vinaver, then the pre-eminent Malory scholar, Fanni encountered what was until then an invisible romance, the post-Vulgate Grail. The Vulgate cycle of Arthurian romances, incorporating the story of Arthur’s kingdom, the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and of the grail, is a product of the early 13th century. What Malory knew was not that version, which is canonical in French, but another Arthuriad, the post-Vulgate “Graal”, which Fanni herself reconstructed from an incomplete version in French and major segments in Spanish and Portuguese: not just reconstructed, but published, in five sizeable volumes, under the title La Version Post Vulgate de la Queste del Saint Graal et de la Mort Artu, between 1991 and 2001.
Perhaps no one other than Fanni would have had the stubborn commitment to complete the edition: when the publishers got her typescript, but told her that unless the romance was in camera-ready form they could not contemplate it, she taught herself to word-process and produced – perhaps to their dismay – thousands of perfectly accurate pages. Every page, every word of this magnum opus required her to compare and collate; she needed to master two further romance languages; she scurried across Europe in pursuit of manuscripts; and she published hundreds of articles, many of them entitled “Another Undiscovered Manuscript of …”, which charted her crusading exploration of her chosen texts.
All this industry, all this dedication, meant that she was not the easiest of colleagues. She had little or no sympathy for anything written later than 1300 and if driven to teach subsidiary students elementary French, or approaches to Gide or Sartre, she would do so with amiable but determined perplexity.
Medieval literature she taught with a bright-eyed enthusiasm that mystified generations of undergraduates – but they remember her vividly, when they have long forgotten more tedious conventional seminars.